Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 123 / NOVEMBER 1990 / PAGE 22

Thinner, shorter, smaller, lighter. The four words that guided the Japanese consumer electronics revolution are now being applied to computers, with startling results. Other adjectives applicable to Japanese computers include faster, cheaper, and different.

The Japanese, having committed themselves to the creation of an information-based society, are ringing changes on the nature, purposes, and goals of computing. Data is the coin of the realm, knowledge the currency, and computer power the raw material on which the Japanese economy increasingly rests.




As a result, Japanese companies, trade associations, and government ministries are shepherding a national move toward industries and endeavors far removed from the traditional manufacturing on which so much of Japan's growth has been based. Lacking ready supplies of raw materials or easily exploited energy, Japan is turning inward, seeking to exploit mental rather than physical resources.

This shift is inevitable as manufacturing moves offshore in search of cheaper labor. The transition is a response to competitive pressure from other Pacific Rim nations that are taking their turn in the manufacturing spotlight.

Tokyo—by night or day—is an electronic wonderland.

But the transition also reflects the Japanese character. Pragmatic and poetic at the same time, the Japanese are evolving a vision of the future with, characteristically, Japan at its center. At the heart of this new future stands Japanese computer technology.

NEC's new office building is one of the most striking in Tokyo—and one of the most "intelligent" buildings in the world.

Fujitsu's FM Towns machine is a good example of the Japanese fusion of consumer electronics with information processing.

Such a future doesn't exclude the rest of us. Instead, it radiates outward, touching and affecting the way we use computers, the way computers are designed, the way we interact with them.

Over the next few years, as Japanese research and innovation bear productive fruit, we'll see computers that call for a whole new generation of adjectives—subtler, softer, fuzzier, friendlier.

First Impressions

At first glance, Japan appears to be the most computerized nation on earth. I mean, it has to be....

Stroll down any street in any major Japanese city. Glance in any direction and you can tell that this is an electronics- and information-oriented society. Not even New York has as many newsstands and bookstalls, not even Los Angeles as many billboards pushing electronics on consumers.

"Be a Laptopper!" urges a poster common on Tokyo's subways and trains. OA, for Office Automation, are common initials in store windows. NEC has for years endorsed C & C—Computers and Communications—as its corporate watchwords. Perhaps in imitation, other companies employ slogans like Think & Link. An impressive number of technology malls showcase the latest in information technology.

A whole area of Tokyo—Akihabara—glows with VDT light; here you can find desktop and laptop computers of all different shapes and sizes, along with dedicated word processors, printers, and all manner of peripherals and software.

NEC's new headquarters dominates a portion of Tokyo's skyline. Noticeable at first for the great gap in its middle—a hole that allows air to flow through the building rather than pushing around it—it's also one of the "smartest" buildings in the world. Information systems and conduits were built into the structure from its conception.

CD-ROM discs nestle next to Nintendo and other game cartridges in toy stores. As many as half of the world's CD-ROM drives are in Japanese homes, connected to PC-Engine game consoles.

The Japanese have, over the last decade, come to dominate most of the subsystems that make up desktop computers—from silicon chips to drives, from floppy disks to monitor technology. Increasingly, the world of computers moves to a Japanese beat.

Where Are All the Computers?

Fewer than one-third of Japanese businesses have computers. It's not uncommon even in large corporations for dozens of employees to share access to a single computer or, just as likely, a single dedicated word processor.

Home computers are equally rare. Despite a booming economy, a high level of education, and access to technology, the Japanese haven't invited the computer into their homes. After an initial flurry of interest in machines such as NEC's MSX, Japanese consumers shifted their purchasing power to dedicated game machines like Nintendo's Famicom, NEC's PC-Engine, and SEGA's Genesis.

While some of these consoles have sprouted computerlike peripherals, including floppy disk drives, CD-ROM drives, and modems, they lack the power and flexibility Americans associate with desktop computers.

On the software side, selection is eclectic and, often, imported. Lotus 1-2-3 is the top-selling business program in Japan. Ashton-Tate and Microsoft also boast strong presences here. The Japanese Personal Computer Software Association (JPCSA) boasts more than 300 member companies, yet many of those members turn to overseas sources, notably China, for the actual creation of programs.

Some analysts attribute Japan's reputed difficulty at creating personal computer software to special aspects of the Japanese character. The country is group-oriented rather than individual-oriented, these analysts observe, and writing software is traditionally an individualistic, entrepreneurial endeavor.

It's different at the mainframe level. Japan's successes and innovations with large undertakings such as the Fifth Generation Project (see sidebar) represent software ambition and achievement on world-class levels.

Quick Change

Japan's transition to an information-based society has come quickly, moving in four decades from essentially a postwar standing start to near leadership in heavy manufacturing such as automobiles, and to global dominance in silicon chip technology (Matsushita, Hitachi, and Toshiba all introduced powerful 16-megabit DRAM chips before their American competitors), consumer electronics (Sony, Panasonic, JVC, and Sharp), international banking (Dai-Ichi Kangyo is the world's largest bank; in 1988, nine of the world's ten largest banks were Japanese), and a myriad of other aspects of the information revolution.

How the Japanese have achieved these business successes remains one of the most hotly debated issues in international trade. You can't open an American newspaper or turn on a television without encountering an editorial or advertisement that attributes Japanese success to unfair trade practices or government bogeymen such as the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI).

Equally prevalent is the myth that the Japanese don't innovate, that their phenomenal success is a result of their ability to copy or synthesize the achievements of other nations. In debating the accuracy or inaccuracy of such charges, it's helpful to look at some points related to the computer industry.

  • NEC was building electronic computers in Japan as early as 1958. The company was marketing transistorized computers in Japan a year before American companies entered the Japanese computer market.
  • In 1971, Japanese plants were producing 1K DRAM chips only a few months after Intel began production in the United States.
  • Japan invested more heavily in CMOS (Complimentary Metal Oxide Silicon) technology than did the United States, perceiving the benefits of such technology to creating those thinner, smaller, shorter, and lighter consumer electronics products that lay at the heart of Japanese industrial strategy.
  • As a result of Japan's CMOS expertise, Tandy turned to the Japanese in 1981 for the technology that made possible the Tandy 100, the first laptop computer.
  • LCD technology, which is bringing ever sharper and more effective screens to laptop computers, found its first real market in Japan, where it was used for watch displays.

No one who's bought a Walkman can say that the Japanese aren't innovative. Fusion, rather than synthesis, more accurately describes the Japanese melding of technologies into new products, which in turn create new markets.

MITI and an Information-Based Japan

Japan understands the importance of goals, of setting them and working to achieve them. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) plays an important role in establishing those goals and has helped keep a substantial portion of industry, education, and commerce focused on the information industry and its economic and social potential.

Too often portrayed in the Western press as a malevolent manipulator exerting complete control over the Japanese economy, MITI is in reality something more complex. While its influence can't be doubted, the Ministry serves more as coordinator than controller, cajoling and encouraging Japanese industries and institutions to pursue the unified paths that have led to Japanese dominance of various industries.

Many of those paths are aimed at smoothing Japan's transition to an information-based economy. A MITI project in the early seventies defined the nation's industrial goals for the decade:

  • Investment in R & D aimed at increasing Japanese capabilities in computers, aerospace products, robots, nuclear power, ocean exploitation, and chemicals
  • Development of "high processing" industries (QA, communications, numerical control machine tools, educational equipment)
  • Expansion of the fashion industries (clothing, furniture, electronics)
  • Development of knowledge industries, including information management, information supply, and education, from software and video products to consulting

MITI laid out the thrust of those goals in 1971 with a statement from its Industrial Structure Council. Every effort must be made, the Council urged, to move Japan from the pursuit of industrial and economic growth to more fully utilizing the informational tools that made that growth possible. Guiding all of the effort would be the goal of an economy built upon mental resources rather than on natural ones.

Two decades later, the achievement of those goals can be witnessed in stores, office buildings, banks, and institutions throughout the world. But even as the seventies unfolded, MITI and other Japanese organizations had their eyes on the eighties—and beyond.

By March 1980, MITI had codified a new vision. More ambitious, the Ministry addressed four major areas: energy conservation, improvement of living conditions and social stability, development of new technologies, and the nurturing of creative and knowledge-based industries.

As the nineties unfold, MITI will once more unveil its goals for the nation and its economy. There is little doubt that those goals will be even more information and computer related, designed to lay the groundwork for a twenty-first-century Japan.

Keyboards and Kanji

Consumer electronics is one thing, consumer computers quite another. In Japan, personal computers face one large hurdle: the Japanese written language. Even the typewriter never found great success in Japan for the simple reason that the character-based Japanese language doesn't lend itself easily to keyboards.

In the West, technology capable of manipulating the alphabet and the numeric system proved relatively simple to develop: 26 letters, ten digits, and handful of grammatical and other symbols.

Our alphabet was fairly simple for typists to master the familiar QWERTY or less familiar Dvorak keyboards. Conversion of the alphabet to microcomputers was likewise a relatively simple matter. The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) accommodates 128 characters and symbols, handling them in as many bytes. (Extended ASCII, developed by IBM, offers 256 symbols.)

Written Japanese is complex and multilayered. The Japanese have literally thousands of characters that any keyboard or software program must accommodate. Depending on which expert you listen to, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 kanji symbols, requiring memory on the order of half a megabyte just for the character set.

Most Japanese keyboards include both Roman and kana alphabets. Kana is a phonetic lettering system that's simpler than kanji but requires conversion into the larger character system.

But even that system has its drawbacks. One Japanese editor demonstrated for me the dilemma of typing in Japanese. After typing a Roman or kana character, he was presented with a choice of kanji characters, from which he selected the one most suited to his meaning. Then he entered the next character and made his next selection. It takes several operations to enter a fairly simple word.

Japanese word processing software is faster than Japanese typewriters—but not by much. The subtleties of Japanese script are beautifully adopted to brush strokes and paper, where nuance and style color each character. Keyboards, by definition, eliminate nuance and replace it with a rigid structure that's in some ways most un-Japanese.

These aspects of Japanese considered, is it any wonder that the fax machine, which was after all Western technology, took off in Japan before it did here? With a fax, Japanese businesspeople could send handwritten correspondence electronically—the best of both worlds.

Chips, circuits, and microprocessors have powered Japan's economic ascent.

It should come as no surprise that handwriting and voice-recognition technologies are the beneficiaries of large-scale R & D efforts in Japan. It should be only slightly less surprising that the Macintosh, with its graphical, mouse-driven interface, has captured several percentage points of the Japanese microcomputer market.

An Elusive Standard

Despite keyboard and software dilemmas, there are millions of PCs in Japan. The country produces about 2.5 million PCs each year, about 1.5 million of those for its domestic market.

NEC dominates the Japanese microcomputer market in a way that not even IBM dominates the American market. With more than 50 percent market share, NEC's 9800 series of PCs have become the de facto Japanese standard.

Still, a standard such as MS-DOS eludes the Japanese. Whereas IBM's chief competitors produce microcomputers that run the same software as Big Blue's, each of NEC's competitors markets its own proprietary BIOS (Basic Input/Output System, that part of the computer's operating system that communicates directly with the hardware).

As a result, there are over 100 different BIOSs in Japan. Software written for one must be at the least tweaked—and in some cases sharply modified—to run on another. Japanese computer makers resolve these differences by including software with their machines.

The system shows little sign of changing. NEC is obviously happy with its huge share of the market and has worked to discourage 9800 series clones and compatibles from other manufacturers.

Still, other standards are springing up. Fujitsu, Japan's second largest microcomputer manufacturer, has enjoyed moderate success with its FM-Towns machine, a 386-based system with a built-in CD-ROM drive. Although originally aimed at the entertainment audience, FM-Towns has lately been repositioned to take better advantage of the growing business interest in CD-ROM materials.

It's possible that we will in the future see a more unified computer standard in Japan. TRON (The Real Operating Nucleus) for example, is a joint venture of NEC, Matsushita, Fujitsu, NTT, Toshiba, Hitachi, Mitsubishi, and Oki Electric, aimed at creating an open computer architecture that accommodates Japanese needs and requirements.

Announced in 1986, TRON is intended to bring various electronic devices and appliances together. This includes not only business computers, but also smart copiers and fax machines, as well as household appliances such as VCRs and telephones. The goal of TRON is nothing less than the unified linking and automation of every electronic aspect of Japanese life.

But despite increased microcomputer power and the promise of projects such as TRON, Japanese computers still haven't come home. Many opinion shapers feel that they won't until prices come down and perceived need goes up. And for that to happen, there will need to be a revolution in Japanese computer education.

Matters of Education

Few nations take the matter of education as seriously as does Japan. The country's educational successes, test scores, and overall literacy are frequently cited as playing an inestimably large part in honing the nation's competitive edge.

(At the same time, the uniformity of basic education throughout Japan is invoked by some observers as an explanation for the country's failure to produce as many first-rate software designers and programmers as the United States produces.)

According to Yozo Shimizu, executive director of the JPCSA, personal computers have only lately been perceived as vital to basic education. Shimizu and his organization are lobbying hard for a massive government investment in computer hardware and software. If fully undertaken, the investment would require billions of dollars. The goal is one computer for every two Japanese students by the mid-1990s.

The JPCSA's plan calls for the computers to be phased into the schools starting at the lowest grades and with the youngest students. "This approach is the fastest route to a full generation of computer-literate Japanese," Shimizu says.

For the plan to work, there must be a decline in PC prices. PCs in Japan cost perhaps twice as much as comparable models in North America. The JPCSA is pressuring hardware manufacturers to reduce prices as a means of helping to create an education market for computers. If that market comes to life, and the number of computers in schools does increase, Shimizu feels certain that Japanese parents will prove more willing to purchase computers for the home.


The other great spur to increased numbers of home computers in Japan is the country's current awareness of the benefits of OA.

OA is perhaps the most common acronym in Japan. You see it everywhere, on billboards and magazine covers, in store windows, and on subway and train placards. Having developed the technology and products that play so vital a part in automating offices throughout the world, Japan seems at last ready to automate its own.

Part of this readiness is sheer pragmatism. As Japan moves to the forefront of a world economy, the amounts of data moving through the nation have multiplied. Traditional paper shuffling and report moving can't keep up with the fast-paced information age Japan has helped create.

There's a cultural aspect at work here as well. Judging by television and print ads in Japan, mastery of OA is considered a boon to a career. OA ads feature sharply dressed, obviously prosperous young people. OA is a key to a better future, a future that may also embrace the home. A recent Tokyo computer show featured a large and well-attended exhibit extolling the virtues of that most Western of rooms, the home office. By persuading people that household OA offers the chance to get more work done while spending more time with the family, Japanese computer makers may sell more computers.

The Next Generation

Among the most ambitious and well-known of Japan's computer research undertakings is the enormous Fifth Generation Project.

Launched in the early 1980s, Fifth Generation is nothing less than the attempt to create software and hardware that will permit natural language—Japanese or English—communication and interaction with computers.

A joint venture of the Japanese government and leading Japanese computer and electronics companies, the Fifth Generation Project is coordinated through the Institute of Next-Generation Computer Technology (ICOT.)

There are three basic thrusts to the Fifth Generation Project:

  • Creation of a huge knowledge base on which Fifth Generation computers can draw in order to reason their way through queries. While this reasoning takes the form of if/then statements familiar to expert systems and artificial-intelligence programmers, the Japanese knowledge base is designed to include graphics, video, and audio information, all of it linked and accessible to users of Fifth Generation computers.
  • Development of problem-solving software capable of humanlike reasoning. Using the Prolog computer programming language, ICOT's researchers are seeking to create intelligent systems capable of making a billion logical inferences per second.
  • Design and manufacture of the hardware necessary to make the system effective. This includes a new generation of terminals capable of accepting voice, handwritten, touch, and other types of commands. While there doubtless will be keyboards for Fifth Generation computers, they're likely be severly outnumbered.

Getting Connected

The real key to an information-based Japan may well prove to be NTT—the nation's telephone company.

A private corporation since April, 1985, NTT has long been among the most aggressive advocates of information technologies. Unlike American telecommunications giants, most notably AT&T, NTT is unfettered by restrictions on delivering information as well as providing communications services. And information may prove to be NTT's number-one product.

Among the most ambitious of the telephone corporation's projects is INS (Information Network System), that's aimed, like TRON, at all users.

Between 1984 and 1987, NTT e stablished prototype INS communities in Musashino and Mitaka, suburbs of Tokyo. The systems offered home shopping with both department store and grocery services, teleconferencing capability, telecommuting for those whose jobs were geared to it, government services, as well as facsimile services that would serve educational needs. One can imagine Japanese students offering hypermodern excuses to their teachers: "The fax ate my homework."

Admittedly optimistic, NTT sees revenues from combined phone, fax, data, telex, and video throughput on INS reaching hundreds of billions of dollars by the mid-1990s.

It's one thing to plan for such a society-wide embrace of new technologies, and quite another to make it come true.

Hi-Ovis (Higashi-Ikoma Optical Visual Information System) was a prototype home information network developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Created in partnership with MITI, Fujitsu (which provided computers), Sumitomo (optical fiber), and Matsushita (audio/visual equipment), Hi-Ovis promised to deliver 2-way interactive communications with video, digital data, and audio capabilities.

In household tests, however, the promise of Hi-Ovis seemed to far outweigh the public's desire to use the system. While 30 percent of the test subjects watched the introductory program telling how the system could be used, less than 5 percent actually took advantage of the system's interactive services.

The Japanese, though, have a tendency to learn from their prototypes, assimilate what they've learned, and move beyond them to the next level. INS is a step beyond Hi-Ovis. It may be that another step—or several—is required before a truly consumer-friendly, consumer-useful information system is developed.

Rising Sun

The nineties could well be the Japanese decade in computing. Certainly that's been the national goal.

Projects such as TRON and Fifth Generation are the most dramatic manifestations of Japan's pursuit of that goal but, like the tip of an iceberg, they represent only a fraction of the exciting computer-related research, development, and product design going on in Japan. Lessons learned in decades of consumer electronics manufacturing and marketing are generating products and approaches that are

Smaller. A whole new generation of "intelligent" cards is being developed by companies like Maxell. These cards, barely larger than a credit card, can hold reams of data and are finding applications as varied as maintaining individual health records and employment histories.

Thinner. The latest laptops are nothing if not Japanese in design and construction. With sharper color monitors, more processing and storage power, and more responsive keyboards, notebook-size laptops will soon make "luggables" and even traditional laptops a memory.

Lighter. A big hit at a recent Tokyo technology show was Sony's Data Discman. This is a truly portable CD-ROM reader with built-in screen and cursor controls. Although not planned for wide release at the moment, Data Discman is a classic example of Japanese fusion.

Shorter. The latest high-definition television sets take up barely half the space of last year's models. Aware that HDTV and CD-ROM have not caught widespread consumer awareness, several Japanese companies have joined together to increase the technology's visibility. CD-ROM displays—using HDTV—are appearing at art museums and exhibitions throughout Japan.

Beyond Tomorrow

Poised on the cusp of the next millennium, the Japanese seem to have it all. They own the chip market, are dominant in display technology, and are exploring new ground in artificial intelligence and parallel processing.

What's happening to the computer is classic Japanese fusion. Ideas and innovations are being born, nurtured, modified and melded. New computers, new approaches to software, new products, and new areas of products are coming to life.

The result? No single result. Evolution doesn't end, it branches. We'll see the Japanese approach to computing absorbed into the approaches other nations take toward computing, even as Japan absorbs other approaches.

On and on—unto the fifth and sixth and all the subsequent generations, Japanese and otherwise, that give gradual, constant rise to a new, multifaceted and multinational, world of computing.